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Interview: E. Lily Yu

E. Lily Yu is the author of On Fragile Waves, forthcoming February 2021 from Erewhon Books. She received the Artist Trust / LaSalle Storyteller Award in 2017 and the Astounding Award for Best New Writer in 2012. Her stories appear in venues from McSweeney’s to Tor.com and in twelve best-of-the-year anthologies, and have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards.

Congratulations on your debut novel! It looks like you first mentioned working on it back in 2012. How does it feel to have On Fragile Waves on the brink of publication?

Thank you. I feel both exhaustion and relief, like a long-distance runner coming within sight of the finish line.

On Fragile Waves follows the Daizangi family from war-torn Kabul, Afghanistan to Melbourne, Australia as they eke out a living as refugees. You anchor us in the experiences of the daughter, Firuzeh. The ghost of her friend, Nasima, keeps her company throughout her journeys as she negotiates her new sense of home. How did the premise come together for you?

I started writing the novel nine years ago and have learned and forgotten a great deal in the meantime. I couldn’t tell you now. What I can tell you is that the novel began with my spending an Australian winter with Professor Paul Tregoning’s research group at the Research School of Earth Sciences, ANU, back when I still thought I might become a physicist. I was supposed to map an anomalous disappearance of groundwater in a remote region of Australia based on remote sensing data, and I did an absolutely rubbish job of it. If anyone from that group is reading this, I’m very sorry about that.

Partway through the assignment, Julia Gillard unseated Kevin Rudd as prime minister, which triggered a federal election. Being in Canberra, and at a university, I was suddenly surrounded by intense political debate. The one major issue I couldn’t understand, even after a reasonable degree of listening and learning, was Australia’s stance on asylum seekers. So I kept digging.

What kind of research went into bringing the Daizangis’ travels and stark struggles of displacement to life?

Many libraries and interlibrary loans, a tremendous amount of reading, three semesters of Persian in graduate school, several remote interviews with researchers and advocates, a week visiting detention centers and refugee advocacy groups in Melbourne, a brief trip to Jakarta, and ten days in Kabul.

What was it like speaking with the refugees and asylum seekers in Melbourne and Kabul who shared their stories with you? What kind of impression did they leave with you?

Mostly one of my own inadequacy. When people take daring actions in extreme situations, they often develop courage and capacity of soul. I saw both of those qualities. Also hope, loneliness, despair. I don’t think it’s desirable for seventeen year olds, for example, to have to develop that kind of capacity, but there are precious few opportunities for it in the developed world. We’re often cowardly and comfort seeking in comparison.

In Kabul, I was frequently fearful. I wish I hadn’t been.

In terms of writing style, is the fable-like prose of the chapters written from Firuzeh’s point of view meant to evoke Hafiz and Rumi? You mentioned that you’d read the two poets, mostly in translation, for this novel.

No, but I had more references and citations to their poetry in earlier drafts.

It’s one of three distinct narrative modes you use. The second one is the expressionistic, concrete poetry style of the chapters where dreams happen, and the third is what would be considered the traditional novel prose for the chapters that introduce us to secondary characters. How did you decide to write in these modes?

The book decided on its own form, though it took its time in letting me know. I tried to impose a variety of structures on it and wound up rewriting the whole book four times. Imagine a block of marble determined to become a particular shape, breaking the chisel every time the sculptor aimed for something else.

You’ve written many of your short stories with the cadence of fairy tales. Some are even fairy tale retellings. I’m thinking of “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees,” “The Valley of the Wounded Deer,” “The No-One Girl and the Flower of the Farther Shore,” “The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight” and “The Time Invariance of Snow.” What brings you back to this storytelling mode?

The eloquence of bones. We are given, when very young, a very old set of narrative constructions. They’re designed to teach us all sorts of values—what to honor, what to fear, how to treat our elders—and they do so deeply and effectively. Never mind craft or clever literary devices. Fairy tales operate on a values-driven logic, though sometimes those values are situationally necessary rather than true, and in the long run, that logic produces a richer and higher life than the common, self-serving rationalizations of ordinary life. As I see it, that is the basic test of new fairy tales; it is easy to tell when that moral logic is missing or flawed. I would classify much of Ayn Rand’s work as failed fairy tales.

You’ve built an impressive career as a short story writer. What has the transition to writing novels been like? Or do you see it as a transition at all?

I’ve always been writing both. If my memory is correct, On Fragile Waves is the third novel I’ve finished, though it’s the only one I’ve wanted to publish.

Do you have other writing projects coming up that you can tell us about?

I’ll be writing the libretto for a twenty-minute opera for Seattle Opera’s Creation Lab, to be performed next year. Besides that, I have drafts of various things in flight and am writing an ongoing series of essays at The Paper Airplane (paperairplane.substack.com).

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.